An Observation About Birth Certificates

In the comments on the post about the gay adoptive parents seeking a new Louisiana birth certificate, a now-familiar discussion arose.   I thought it might be useful to write a short post that might clarify some of the issues.  At least I can hope.

Consider how birth certificates are used.   One place I’ve been asked for a birth certificate is in enrolling a child for school.    Another is in applying for a passport.    In these instances, the birth certificate provides the agency that asks for it (the school district or the state department) with several needed pieces of information–two in particular. 

First, the birth certificate allows the agency to establish the age of the child.   Second, the birth certificate demonstrates my entitlement as a parent to enroll the child or apply for the passport. 

To establish the age, the birth certificate needs to state the date on which the child was born.   (The state department may also need to see that the child was born in the US.)   The date and place of birth are past facts–things that happened once and can be recorded permanently.  

To establish my entitlement to apply for the document or enroll the child, the birth certificate needs to reflect my current status as a legal parent.    Perhaps I adopted the child.   If so, the original parent or parents of the child have no right to participate in the decision about where the child goes to school or whether the child gets a passport.    That decision is mine alone. 

This means that the original parents name does not need to be on the birth certificate but my name does need to be.  This is why, when I complete the adoption, I get a new birth certificate for the child.   

Beyond that, I think I might claim it’s no business of the school or the state department (or the soccer team, which wants the birth certificate for age verification)  whether I adopted the child or gave birth to the child.   Thus, as an adoptive parent, I want a birth certificate that is identical to the original one, except with my name instead of the original parent’s name.  

I think this explains what generally happens–how states deal with birth certificates, what can be changed and what cannot be changed and, to an extent why.  

But let me be clear, too, about what I am not saying.   I do not mean to suggest that it has to be this way or that this is the best way to do things.   Perhaps change is warranted.  

I can imagine a system where one document records the date/place of birth and perhaps also the identity of the woman who gives birth to the child.   All of these seem to me to be historical facts.  They could be recorded in a permanent and unchanging record.   

Then I could imagine a second piece of paper which recorded the legal parentage of the child.   That could be reissued if the identity of the legal parents changed.  (I’m fuzzy on a lot of details, like whether state 2 could issue a new certificate upon completion of adoption where the original certificate had been issued in state 1, but nevermind that for now.)  

When I wanted to register my child for school I’d produce both pieces of paper–the one showing I am the current legal parent and the one showing the date of birth for the child.   Of course, this would only work if the school district was prepared to accept these two pieces of paper instead of a birth certificate.   If I wanted the child to play soccer, I’d only need the paper showing date of birth.   

The thing is, this is a fairly substantial change from current practice.   That’s not to say it shouldn’t happen.  But until it does happen, adoptive parents need birth certificates that have their names on them.   

Perhaps adoptive parents should be encouraged to preserve a copy of the child’s original birth certificate to give to the child in order to ensure that the child has access to the information on that original certificate.   That’s something anyone could do right now and it seems to me it would help address some of the concerns that have been raised.

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21 responses to “An Observation About Birth Certificates

  1. There are many States which parse the birth mother’s name from the parent listed on the birth certificate. Such a scheme permits parents via surrogacy to shield the carrier from public records. For those who have adopted, a birth certificate in their name is a true original, with no reference to the birth parent(s) or to some administrative act, ie. “Amended”.

    I do not think there is any peer reviewed psychological research which suggests that a child of surrogacy or an adoption is better served by the Parents hiding the true nature of their birth.

    That, however, is separate and apart from the public being allowed access to such personal information.

    • You’ve drawn a really important distinction which I didn’t highlight clearly enough. There’s surey a difference between saying that parents should tell their children certain things or that children should be entitled to know certain things (on the one hand) and saying that the general public gets to know those things.

      I think there are good arguments for encouraging parents to be forthright with their children, in a manner appropriate to the age of the child. There may also be some arguments about what is best for children, though typically we trust parents to know what is best for their children. But these arguments in now way establish that the general public has any right to know, if the parents and/or the child do not want them to know.

  2. Good point. I see a need to differentiate between knowledge that is available to the public and to the private. However, I am afraid that the process you describe might be a bit cumbersome and difficult to implement.

  3. It’s true that it might be cumbersome, but perhaps there is a tradeoff. As it stands, we ask a single document (the birth certificate) to do several different things. There’s a certain simplicity in having only one document, but it creates problems, which have been discussed quite a bit. One alternative would be to have (at least) two different documents. Each would be less useful–sometimes you’d need to provide both, sometimes one or the other–but you’d avoid some of the problems others have complained about. I’m not sure which is better. Or maybe there’s a third way better than both of these?

    I’m also thinking now about something else. I think much of the concern over changing the names of parents on the birth certificate is rooted in the idea that children need to have access to certain kinds of information.

    It’s occured to me (really thinking about Robert’s point above) that what children get told is generally left up to their parents. I think it’s likely to stay that way. I cannot imagine that any legislature would enact a law commanding that parents provide their children with particular pieces of information.

    Further, it’s quite possible for parents recieving a new birth certificate to keep a copy of the original one to give to their kids. This suggests to me that if there’s a problem here the answer might be that parents have to be encouraged to be forthright with their kids. And the question might be how does law/society encourage that?

  4. Parents, as you said, are assumed to know what is best for their kids- but only up to the age of majority. Adults are assumed to to know best for themselves. Thus I have no problem with emending the birth certificates, but leaving the originals accessible to the adult child.

    • I agree that one how or another the information should be available to an adult child who wants to have it. This does make me realize, though, that there probably frequently many family secrets that parents do not ever share with their kids. Not that I’m saying that’s good.

  5. Why couldn’t you have a legal parent birth certificate that has the birthdate on it so you do not need to ever use both? That way the OBC does not have to be changed and if requested by the individual as an adult the state applies a printed statement in one corner that says something like mine:

    This is not the legal birth certificate currently on file for this person.

    (Note mine was court ordered so starts with: This is an original record from a sealed file as requested byh a court order.)

    There could be all sorts of reasons why you as a parent would have the legal parent birth certificate, not just adoption.

    OBC’s should be the right of every citizen, not just some. They also come in very handy post 911 especially if the new birth certificate was created more than a year after the birth. Some adoptees new birth certificates from the closed era are missing vital information or wrong dates which raises all sorts of issues with Homeland Security. Then they want the OBC which we cannot get because it is in a sealed file.

    • I think I understand what you are suggesting–but let me restate it to see? After adoption, a new birth certificate would be issued with new legal parent names and original date/place of birth? The original certificate would be available to the child upon request. I assume, though, if other folks asked for a copy of the birth certificate, they’d get the revised one (with no notation that it had been revised.)

      You could certainly do that. I think I was under the impression that this was not entirely satisfactory to everyone, since it does involve preparing a birth certificate that records the names of people who were not the original parents? But it’s certainly workable as far as I’m concerned.

      • The problem comes in when the wording indicates biological ‘as if’ the child was born to that mother and father – that is wrong because it is a lie – legal or not. But if it was a legal parent wording then that’s fine because it is the truth. The way it is now – our current birth certificates are legal fiction. Having a true statement of who our legal parents are is fine.

        The legal birth certificate could be issued to any class of children and could be the one generally provided be it for bio, adopted, donor conceived as a legal document that defines who the child is and who speaks on/acts on behalf of the minor child or the adult child in times of incapacity if no spouse or power of attorney is in the picture.

        Having access to our OBC is a right afforded to every other citizen and denied to adoptees in most states. This really is separate from the realistic need to have a document to use to enroll children in school, apply for passports etc. Although having the OBC with the disclaimer on it would perhaps solve Homeland Securities current issues with amended BC’s dated more than a year after birth.

        • I don’t think the word “biological” appears anywhere on most birth certificates–certainly not on Washington state ones. Neither does the word “legal.” It just says “parent” or “mother” or “father”. The problem is that different people attribute different meanings to the unmodified word “parent” or perhaps attribute all possible meanings to it.

          • Washington:
            You are correct it does not state biological but it creates the falsehood that they gave birth to the child calling it a Certificate of Live Birth, followed by the child’s name, date, place and sex, then followed by mother and age at birth, father and age at birth.

            It is an illusion and therefore false. I take exception to the fact that it is not what it appears to be. Adoption is a legal arrangement – keep it real.

            I cannot see how it is ever okay for a court of law to create a legal fiction. How can that ever be deemed that a lie is okay?

            • It’s actually not uncommon for the law to create legal fictions–happens all the time in endless contexts, and I suppose one must evaluate each one. I see what you are suggesting. I’ve said this before, but to be strictly accurate and consistent, stating only historical facts, I would think that the certificate should include the name of the woman who gives birth and no more. (After all, it is a certificate of live birth.) Once we depart from that and start to add other names (like a father) we are often listing people based on their legal status as a parent. That being the case, it’s not hard to see how things get to the present practice.

              I don’t mean to say they should be this way. I’d be open to having dual certificates–one recording history and one recording legal parentage. But I don’t know that there’s any real effort to change things that way.

              • I see my previous comment was poorly worded so allow me to rephrase:

                Listing the biological father is not just a statement of legal fact, but a historical statement. It is just that we do not require evidence as to its historical truth beyond the affirmation of the parties involved. That does not make it a legal fiction, unless we have clear evidence to the contrary.

      • Sorry, the OBC would only be available to the person named once they are an adult or the legal parent named on the amended legal parent version.

  6. What happens when adoptive parents adopt a child from abroad? Many countries never change a birth certificate so I’m guessing those adoptive parents just show they are the legal parents using the certificate of adoption. Why can’t American parents also just show an adoption certificate – I’ve only been asked to produce a birth certificate for my daughter on four occasions in ten years.

  7. Listing the man who is presumed to have fathered the child is also listing an historical fact, albeit a presumptive one.
    Then again, it’s only slightly more presumptive than naming the mother-
    The state accepts the word of the parents on who is the child without biological evidence, just as it accepts the word of the hospital personell on who gave birth, without requiring them to submit biological evidence.

  8. My partner and I are the parents in the Louisiana Birth Certificate court case. As an adopted child myself the importance of the birth certificate is less about the parents. Its about the childs right to privacy – the adoption decree which we have been forced to use – has information that need not be shared with anyone, other than the biological parents, adoptive parents and the child.

  9. I have been thinking some more about birth certificates.

    Basically our birth certificate is a form of identification.

    How do we identify a baby? Except for its sex, its physical appearance changes too rapidly to be significant (unlike some adult forms ofID which include Height, Eye color, and photo). It hasn’t yet become known by a particular name.

    Thus the only way to identify a baby are the date of its birth and it’s DNA- which essentially means listing the two DNA sources, the mother and father.

    Caregivers-to-be are not a form of identification since they haven’t happened yet.

    Regarding changing sex on ID forms: If a person has undergone actual surgical changes that give it the actual appearance of the opposite sex, (I believe that is quite rare) I might consider changing it on a legal ID form. However, hormone therapy alone would not cut it for me as I understand such hold up with continuous maintenance otherwise the person would revert to its baseline sex. (although i must admit I don’t know much about transgender therapies.)

    • It’s getting late and I haven’t thought too much about this, but your suggestion that we think about birth certificates as IDs is interesting. In the past, naming the DNA sources (when we got them right) wasn’t really helpful because we didn’t have very good DNA testing. Now we do. If we want IDs should we just somehow put the baby’s DNA coding on the certificate? That’s even better than the DNA sources.

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